Bigger classes, more contact time with students and fewer staff to teach the same number of courses mean that we can’t spend as much time annotating students’ texts as we used to. For this reason as well we can’t offer the traditional workshop where everyone sends in work to everyone else and all write copious notes which are then fed back in detail to the person who has produced the work.
I’m in a couple of critique groups myself and have to fit in looking at another eight or so scripts a month. As you would expect, with my university work and my own writing deadlines I don’t have a lot of time to devote to this. I only have about an hour before the meeting as I sit with a pot of Earl Grey and a slice of cake in a nice café. I actually do get quite a lot done in that time, and actually make more annotations than I talk about in the meeting. But I certainly don’t go into as much details as I would if I were being paid for a full critique or edit.
My comments are always along the lines of:
What is best about the piece?
What is worst about it – maybe identifying the fault the removal of which might make the biggest difference?
Which one thing might the writer do that will make a huge improvement?
I also tend to ask questions rather than make comments. I do that when I’m editing too.
I think this works quite well, both with my writing buddies and my students. People can only digest a certain amount in one go. What you’re teaching them at this point anyway isn’t just for this piece of work. They can probably apply it to everything they write.
Also, they need to know what they are doing right as well – so they can repeat it. Finishing the feed-back with a practical suggestion also gives the writer hope for the future. The negative is cushioned nicely between two positives.
I have to confess that the idea of commenting through asking questions came from a former existence: I learnt this technique when supervising trainee teachers. It worked in that situation too.